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Hometown flutist Langevin returns to Montreal with the N.Y. Phil

Harry Rolnick

October 2011

In politics or baseball, Robert Langevin would be considered a traitor, greeted with prison or spitballs. In the world of classical music, though, the Sherbrooke-born onetime associate principal flute with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, will step out on the stage of the new concert hall and be greeted with applause worthy of his talents.

After Sir James Galway left his first chair flute position with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Langevin is perhaps the world’s best-known orchestral flutist. In Montreal, he made more than 30 recordings with the orchestra.

With the New York Philharmonic, where he has held his first chair for more than a decade, his ensemble playing has been singled out by the international music review site, ConcertoNet, as “dazzling,” an “extraordinary sound,” and in Lorin Maazel’s Romance for Flute and Orchestra, written for Galway, “a splendid artist.” Coming back to Montreal for performance with the N.Y. Philharmonic on November 4 and 5 will be a personal delight.

“Essentially,” he tells The Senior Times, “because I am playing one of the greatest concertos ever written for the flute.”

The Concerto for Flute and Harp played with the orchestra’s first chair harpist, Nancy Allen, is controversial, since Mozart volubly wrote to his father that he intensely disliked the sound of the instrument.

“He probably had good reason to,” Langevin says. “Flute players at that time were not technically as adept as he wished for. Nonetheless, Mozart wrote music that satisfied himself, even if the soloist then couldn’t play it.

“If I happened to think of anything besides the music itself when playing it, I would think first of the absolute beauty of the work. But second, how Mozart experiences such emotional variety. Initially, you conceive how lyrically, how almost operatically the work sounds for flute and harp. But then you realize how, like in any aria, moods change suddenly. From pure song to angry declarations, from the freedom of the notes to a sterner, more serious emotion.

“Nor does Mozart give you much time to think about these changes. It’s easy enough to say that Mozart wrote music that flows right along. But actually, he changes course without any preparations. When you listen carefully, he actually jolts you from one emotion to another.”

“Nothing better than dining again in Montreal.” Photo courtesy of the New York Philharmonic

Langevin has been performing as a soloist and orchestral musician since the age of 15, garnering awards. That has meant pure concentration, rather than describing meaning.

Drawn to the flute at 12, he joined the Sherbrooke Symphony a mere three years later. He inevitably migrated to Montreal. But with his talent, this was hardly an Oliver Twist rags-to-riches story.

In the Montreal Conservatory, he graduated with first prizes in flute and chamber music. Garnering the Prix d’Europe, Langevin studied in Europe, then joined the MSO as associate flutist, as well as soloist in the Musica Camerata Montreal and l’Ensemble de la société de musique contemporaine du Québec.

With Charles Dutoit, “the most demanding conductor,” this was an Augean life, but Mr. Langevin reveled in it.

“My goal was to play music and any kind of music was fine with me. I really didn’t expect to get a full-time orchestra job, I just wanted to be able to play as well as I could, no matter the style.”

After 13 years, he left Canada for the Pittsburgh Symphony, and after several years, he won first chair with the New York Philharmonic.

Being first chair, he says, is a special joy: “Being a principal player, you get to play a lot more and don’t need to do as much outside work.”

It’s also garnered the special joy of working with the most important conductors in the world, from Pierre Boulez to Kurt Masur and the present conductor, Alan Gilbert (“A more intellectual conductor,” he describes him), who will lead the New York Philharmonic in Montreal.

In theory, this means playing tennis with his wife (a special passion), but in actuality, he is engaged in giving classes throughout the United States and in such countries as Canada, Spain, Costa Rica, Japan, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.

He is on the faculties of The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music and the Orford International Summer Festival.

Teaching, he says, “is a special kind of learning. It isn’t teaching in words, of course. And when I play a section and hear how students listen and how they interpret a passage, I can look at it differently as well.”

As a rule, orchestral musicians see their colleagues respectfully. But as part of a unique elite, they rarely surrender to emotional extravagance. This visit, though, will put Langevin in a special position.

“For a decade, I’ve been telling the New York players about the joys of Montreal restaurants. Finally, they’re pestering me for suggestions on the best food.

“Second only to playing Mozart for a hometown audience,” he says, “I can think of nothing better than dining again in Montreal.”

For ticket information, call 514-842-9951.

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